But I can’t remember if it has a disk brake or not. I can’t even remember its year—somewhere in the early ‘80s—mental lapses that show how much I’d been thinking about motorcycles. I didn’t think it had a disk brake, but several Google searches of early 80s Yamaha ITs prove inconclusive because none of them has the same color scheme as mine. The Hammer and Tongs rules stipulate no disk brakes and also seems to indicate that 1981 is the last year of eligible bikes. I email Siege, the Hammer and Tongs guru, and he tells me that as long as it does not have the three items, it’s eligible.
Todd, the bike, and an approaching Hammer and Tongs summer race in Portland, Oregon (June 2011), seem to converge and push the idea of racing from wild fantasy into a flimsy and uncertain reality. As a teenage bike fanatic, I desperately wanted to race, but my parents wouldn’t sign the release form. I mention that I’m thinking about racing to my wife and family, and they seem to take it in stride. Perhaps as a way to build up my courage, a kind of whistling in the dark, I mention it to my English Department colleagues. Alan, our senior member, seems amazed; Tim laughs and tells me to be careful; Mardy says “You should” and tells me to take pictures. I’m still not sure if I’ll really do it, but they’re my friends, the kind of people who will understand if I decide not to.
Motocross and academics are not normally associated with each other. Most people stereotype college professors as a bunch of nerds, a stereotype to some extent true. At conferences I’ve certainly seen more than a few weedy academics with tweed coats, thick glasses, large briefcases, and a kind of wild, unkempt, thrift shop look about them. But some of my colleagues defy this stereotype: Bill is in his late 50s, bicycles to work every day and is still a great swimmer; Phil, in his late 50s, plays competitive basketball; and Dan in the Music department recently completed a full triathlon. In a classic other life in other days kind of story, Suzanne, one of the librarians, raced sports cars when she was young.
School’s out, I finish my paperwork for the year and drive up to Wilson Creek with my family to visit Mom. Later in the summer, I’m going to stay with her and paint her house. I call Todd. “Vintage motocross has really taken off,” he says. “There’s lots of guys our age. People are really nice. Lot’s of different bikes. Bultacos, Hondas, Huskys, tons of YZs. I think every Maico ever built is still running. Yeah, I’m going to Portland. You’re welcome to come join us if you like.” I’m glad for this possibility. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather go with than Todd: he’s a nice guy, a good rider, and a great mechanic.
But I need to check out the bike. From the hook in Mom’s house I get the key ring filled mostly with keys to non-existent locks, walk down the lane to the grain bin, and unlock the steel door. It bangs with a hollow sound, lonely and thunderous. The scene feels like stepping back into time, like opening a time capsule of my own life. I peer inside and see mice scamper over some shelves in the back.
The bike is still there, right where I left it two years ago after I rode it for an hour. I back it out of the bin, push it back to the house, and discover that a family of mice has been living a greasy existence in the air box. The air filter is chewed up and ruined; it smells so bad that, even though I’m wearing gloves, I touch it only with a rag. The grips have the texture of black licorice and leave gooey stains on my gloves. It will probably run—it always has—but not without some help.
I leave the bike alone and focus on the visit. My son joins me on my yearly visit to the cemetery. I tell him stories about people I once knew, or tell him stories about people I never knew but my dad told me about. He’s here too now, having passed away in 2009. He’s a story in himself: he farmed with horses when he was young and owned a cell phone when he was old. If he were alive he would tell me I’m nuts.
In a few days my family and I leave for Seattle to visit my wife’s parents. While there, I head down the to the Yamaha shop on Highway 99 in Lynnwood and order an aftermarket air filter that will arrive in a few days. I go down and across the street to Bent Bike and buy a set of grips, a spark plug, and a bottle of Golden Spectro two stroke oil. The knobs are starting to chunk on the front tire, but a new tire costs more than I want to spend for one event.
Back in Wilson Creek the next week, I install the new parts and pour fresh pre-mix into the tank. Several kicks later, the bike starts. Amazing. I ride it around for a few minutes. It’s got a blistering midrange and digs a trench into the driveway whenever I nail the throttle.
I call Todd. “It runs,” I say.
“That’s always good,” he replies.
A few days later, I haul the bike out to Todd’s and we head out to his track. It’s a nice track on a hillside with good berms and jumps, but the track is dusty this time of year, it’s laced with rocks, and I’m unfamiliar with it, so I back off a bit. But I’m pleased that my basic skills and reflexes are still there, completely second nature from countless hours of riding decades ago.
We ride several laps and stop. Todd tells me “I’d say you’d be about mid-pack in the amateur class.” I find his evaluation encouraging. I’ve never raced and part of me wants to find out if I was really any good all those years ago. I tell him that I’ve learned two things from the track time: that I still have my skills and that I’m not going to win. “You might,” he says.
But the bike needs more work. A side plate is loose and I have to hold it in with my leg, the front pipe mount under the tank is broken, and I’ve got a lap full of premix from a cracked gas cap. “Go down to Experience Powersports in Moses Lake,” Todd says, “and ask for Lance. Tell him I sent you. Maybe he can help you with the gas cap.”
I enter the shop and walk past new, chic looking Yamahas and KTMs painted and styled in ways that make them look faddish and generic. I’m drawn to a beautiful late ‘70s Kawasaki KX 250, radiant in its Kawasaki green tank, fenders, shocks, and fork gaiters and gold anodized swing arm. My motorcycle memory seems to be coming back. “It’s a ’79” I tell myself.
I do what Todd says even though it seems a bit presumptuous on my part. “I’m looking for Lance,” I say. “Todd sent me.” A serious vintage racer, Lance exudes a kind of gracious professionalism and helps me out. He digs around in the back of his shop and finds a cap that looks like it will fit. I’m glad I followed Todd’s plan. “What do I owe you,” I ask.
“I don’t want to sell it,” he says, holding the two caps in his hands and closely comparing them. “It’s off an old Suzuki and I’d have to replace it. But I’ll loan it to you for the weekend.”
Before I leave I ask Lance if the KX is a ’79. It is.
The cap fits perfectly and never leaks a drop. To fix the pipe mount, I drill a hole through both metal plates and the rubber vibration dampener and bolt them together. While I’m at it, I remove some haywire installed by a previous owner to hold the pipe on and secure it much better with a hose clamp. I hammer and bend the number plate mounting bracket so that it tucks the number plate up under the seat like it was designed to, something I should have done years ago.
I test the bike in a small field across from Mom’s house where I used to have one of my tracks years ago. I carve out a track, mostly following thin spots in the cheat grass. It’s small with tight corners and one long straight where I probably hit fifth gear, maybe sixth. I also practice starts. Like Goldilocks’s porridge, first gear is too low and third gear is too high, but second gear seems right. But my starts are inconsistent. Traction is good and the bike wants to wheelie and go sideways. Mentally, I give up on starts and resign myself to starting well back in Saturday’s race. But on the other hand, I get used to shifting rapidly and riding that midrange hit. And I get used to going really fast really suddenly, grabbing the brakes, and slowing down in a hurry.
We leave mid-day Friday for the seven hour drive to Portland, towing a trailer loaded with Todd’s Huskys, my Yamaha, and Dan’s Honda. The trip includes Todd; Karen, Todd’s significant other; Dan, Todd’s racing buddy; and me. Dan is in his early fifties, older than I am, and really nice. Dan rides a Honda CR 250 that he bought for $450.00 from one of Todd’s neighbors who stored it for years in a barn. Dan rebuilt the top end and started racing. “He gets holeshots all the time with that thing,” Todd says. Like me, Dan hadn’t ridden much for three decades, but he’s been vintage racing the past few years and burning up the +50 intermediate class. Riding hiatus, cheap bike, racing success, middle age youth—I love it.
The trip to Portland is wonderful. Lots of bike talk. Karen doesn’t seem to mind it. Dan and Todd recall past races; Todd and I talk farming and Wilson Creek; Karen, Todd, and I talk more Wilson Creek; Karen and I talk music and literature; Karen says I should write a story about the trip. More bike talk.
My favorite story is one Todd tells about racing back in high school at Egypt, a track north of Davenport, Washington. The track was long and fast and he crashed hard off a big jump, coming to rest with his head in the dirt and his face a few inches from a steel sprinkler. The crash ruined the handlebars and even tore off one of the grips. But the date is the real kicker: May 18, 1980. Everyone in eastern Washington remembers this day, the day Mt. St. Helens exploded and spewed an apocalypse of darkness and ash over our half the of state. The darkness lasted a few hours; the dust and ash lasted all summer. In a miracle of timing, that day at the Baptist church in Wilson Creek Pastor Ruhlman preached on light and darkness, surely a sermon with one of the best illustrations of all time. Providentially, Todd’s crash caused his family to pack up and head home where they arrived before the ash came and made the roads impassible.
I look out the window at the wonderful scenery. I love the Columbia gorge. Lewis and Clark, water, wind, wind surfers, railroads, dams, tug boats, barges, basalt cliffs, waterfalls, even a few mountain goats. High above the river across from Biggs, Oregon, Maryhill Museum rests on a hill, a desolate and obscure location visited, unbelievably, by Queen Marie of Romania and, even more unbelievably, houses an important collection of Rodin sculptures. The gorge seems like a timeline of history where geography forces humans and nature to share and interact, mile after mile, where whatever humans do seems somehow dwarfed by the wind, the hills, the river, and time.